Asia Pacific / Politics

Record turnout for Hong Kong local elections seen as bellwether for democracy

Reuters, AFP-JIJI, Bloomberg

Record numbers of Hong Kong people voted on Sunday in district elections viewed as a barometer of support for Chief Executive Carrie Lam, a turnout apparently triggered by six months of demonstrations for greater democracy.

The police presence was thin, and no violence or other disturbances were reported.

Protests have been muted in recent days after pro-democracy figures urged citizens to cease disruptions to avoid giving the government an excuse to delay or suspend the polls.

The vote is the closest Hong Kongers get to direct representation.

Brutal attacks on candidates in recent weeks have thrust the lowest tier of government in the Chinese-ruled city into the world spotlight as authorities struggle to quash angry demands for universal suffrage.

A record 1,104 candidates were vying for 452 seats, and a record 4.1 million people had enrolled to vote for district councilors, who control some spending and decide issues such as recycling and public health.

If the pro-democracy campaigners gain control, they could secure six seats on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and 117 seats on the 1,200-member panel that selects the city’s chief executive.

Government data showed 1,746,709 people had already voted by 2:30 p.m., surpassing the 1,467,229 who voted in the last district elections four years ago.

Campaigning has been marred by acrimony. One pro-democracy candidate’s ear was bitten off in an attack, and 17 other candidates of all stripes have been arrested over protest-related activities.

Election authorities banned leading democracy activist Joshua Wong from running in the district election because of his backing of self-determination for Hong Kong.

Voter Ming Lee, 26, who works in event production, said she hoped the higher turnout would benefit the pro-democracy camp, which is battling for some seats that once were dominated by pro-Beijing candidates and went uncontested.

“I hope this vote can counter the voice of the pro-establishment so as to bring in more voices from the democrats,” she said. “The social problems encouraged people to vote and to focus on political issues.”

A 30-year-old who works in the service industry and gave his name as Tsz said the voter numbers showed people’s determination: “The high turnout rate … definitely reflects Hong Kong people’s hope for genuine universal suffrage.” Jimmy Sham, a candidate for the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized some of the mass anti-government rallies of recent months, was beaten by men with hammers in October.

“We can see Hong Kongers are longing for a chance to express their stand,” he said. “We don’t know yet, at the end of the day, if the democrats can win a majority. But I hope our Hong Kong citizens can vote for the future of Hong Kong.”

Lam cast her ballot in front of TV cameras and pledged that her government, widely seen as out of touch, would listen “more intensively” to the views of district councils.

“I hope this kind of stability and calm is not only for today’s election, but to show that everyone does not want Hong Kong to fall into a chaotic situation again,” Lam said.

The anti-China protests have at times forced the closure of government offices, businesses and schools in the city’s worst political crisis in decades. Police have used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons in response to gasoline bombs, rocks and occasionally bows and arrows.

Restaurant manager Jeremy Chan saw the elections in the financial hub as offering supporters of Beijing a chance to share their opinions.

“They believe they are fighting for democracy, fighting for Hong Kong, but the rioters only listen to what they want to hear,” said the 55-year-old, citing vandalism of businesses seen as pro-Beijing. “Freedom of speech is lost.”

The protests started over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but rapidly evolved into calls for full democracy, posing the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

Sunday was the seventh day of a standoff at Polytechnic University, its campus surrounded by police as some protesters hid out on the sprawling grounds.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. They say they are also responding to perceived police brutality.

China denies interfering and says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula for the autonomy of Hong Kong. Police say they have shown restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.

Beijing meanwhile stepped up its criticism of the U.S., where President Donald Trump is deliberating whether to sign into law an amendment that would require annual reviews of Hong Kong’s special trading status.

Attempts to use Hong Kong “to contain China’s development is a pipe dream,” according the state-run People’s Daily.

Trump has declined to say if he will sign the amendment to the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, after it was passed by the House and Senate.

The changes to the act would require annual reviews of Hong Kong’s special trading status under U.S. law to determine if it remained “sufficiently autonomous” from Beijing to justify its privileges.